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Red Scare

From the Warner Archive Collection come three magisterial melodramas by Vincente Minnelli — “The Cobweb” (1955), “Tea and Sympathy” (1956) and “Two Weeks in Another Town” (1962) — plus one of his patented stressed-out marriage comedies, “The Reluctant Debutante” (1958). The widescreen transfers are pretty good given the limitations of Eastman Color — those Minnelli reds practically jump out of the screen and sit in your lap — and “The Cobweb” even features the directional stereo that was a standard component of all early CinemaScope features. Despite some superb critical work on Minnelli — including James Naremore’s superb 1993 monograph for the Cambridge Film Classics series and Joe McElhaney’s brilliant reading of “Two Weeks” in his 2006 “The Death of Classical Cinema” — Minnelli’s melodramas continue to take a back seat to Douglas Sirk’s work in the genre, perhaps because Sirk’s clean, chilly, modernist style is more easily digested than Minnelli’s emotional and scenic excess. A brief overview of the four films in question here, in the New York Times.

119 comments to Red Scare

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I think Rick Altman is absolutely right in arguing that there is no such thing as “pure genre” (except for the purpose of “theory”) while genre blending is the norm. Even the apparently most easily “defined” genres can be problematic. A STAR IS BORN is definitely not a musical even though it has a lot of singing in it. On the other hand countless B. westerns of the thirties and forties were also musicals. I remember Tag Gallagher insisting that the western is not a genre because it cannot be properly defined. So when we get to niceties as the difference between drama and melodrama as genres, the discussion can be highly interesting but it’s unlikely to lead us to any satisfactory conclusion

    Some of us here, and most recently Brian, have proposed that melodrama “demands exaggerated emotional expression” but how do you quantify emotion and at what point does it become “exaggerated”? Such a definition seems to reflect the point of view of the uninvolved spectator rather than the feelings of the film’s characters. With the notion of “exaggeration” we return to the pejorative concept of “melodramatic” which we have been trying to challenge.

    I have found myself (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) in “real” situations which, transported to a movie screen, would have been considered melodramatic, and probably excessively so. It was not, however, the feeling of any of the involved parties (including myself) while they were going through those arrowing “real life” moments. Why should a piece of art (a movie) be deemed “exaggerated” when life itself so often is (but of course minus the directing expertise of the filmmaker)? And ultimately, isn’t there “craziness” in all forms of “drama” — from tragedy to melodrama (whatever it actually is)?

  • Alex

    Does “no such thing as ‘pure genre’” mean no such thing EMPIRCALLY? Assumimng that this is so, does the statement mean that “genre” is not analytically useful, especially when we match a film to a single genre?

    Or does the statement just refer to the inevitable gap between all analytical concepts and empirical referents? Seems to me we can all identify bunches of Westrns and detective mysteries (or vengeance Westerns or classical detective mysrteries) without troublesome imprecision.

  • But if genre blending is the norm, then I’m not quite sure what the explanatory value of the term “genre” actually is, since in common usage it is supposed to denote a group of films sharing a certain subject matter and/or style. If such groups don’t really exist, because the differences outweigh the similarities, it doesn’t make sense to try grouping them under certain labels in the first place.

  • My ideas about genre are only one half of my problem with “melodrama”. Certainly, I believe that genres are usually public, shared systems of ideas and images, widely and easily recognized by everyone from filmmakers to millions of people in the audience. If melodrama is to be a “genre” like Westerns, musicals or detective stories, we need to see in detail what these ideas are.

    But melodrama and Minnelli has a completely different set of problems too. Almost all the developers of the idea of a “melodrama genre including Minnelli”, were explicitly, forcefully Freudian in their ideas. Thomas Elsaesser and especially Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Robin Wood, the key advocates, saw the stylization in Minnelli’s melodramas as an expression of ideas and forbidden feelings under patriarchy, that escaped into strident emotionalism and over-the-top stylization. The idea was that Minnelli’s style was the expression of what Freud called “conversion hysteria”.
    In general, Minnelli has been the subject of as much Freudian study as any American film director. He is almost always seen as being dominated by “hysteria”, a Freudian kind of mental illness or neurotic syndrome.

    I personally am uncomfortable with this approach on all levels. I do not believe Freudian theory is scientifically sound, or bears any relation to reality. I don’t see Minnelli’s films as centering around hysteria or mental illness. I see the stylization in Minnelli as art, not as an expression of the repressions of society, or mental illness.

    Further, I fear that for me to endorse the concept of a “melodrama genre including Minnelli”, would logically force me to embrace Freudian theory and the above analysis.
    This might or might not be true – but the thought makes me “nervous” myself 🙂

    Blake Lucas offered a brilliant artistic analysis of THE TARNISHED ANGELS in his posts.
    I will keep them and return to them the next time I watch Sirk.
    But his arguments in favor of a “melodrama genre including Minnelli”, do not address or mention my deep concerns about the above psychoanalytic issues. It is these concerns, and my beliefs about genre as a whole, that are stopping me dead in my tracks.

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex and Yann, I think that this problem melts away if you think of genre classification as a starting point to a discussion of the films rather than an end point of classifying them. The genre gives you context of shared understandings from which a discussion can take off, but as soon as you’ve added “vengeance” to “western” you have already subseted out of any notion of “purity.” Which film that we could all agree to as a western is NOTHING BUT a western? And I would ask Tag “there’s no such thing as neo-realism” Gallagher whether Roy Rogers singing a few songs is enough to make a film a musical, or whether you need fully choreographer sequences as in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN or RED GARTERS to qualify.

    Mike, believe me, you won’t have to sign a loyalty oath to psychoanalysis to accept melodrama as a genre or Minnelli as a melodramatist . However, you may want to seek professional help regarding this extreme aversion to Freud.

  • Alex

    Yann Heckmann,

    It never crossed my mind that “no such thing as ‘pure genre’” might nullify the “explanatory value of the term ‘genre’.” And I don’t see why “If genre blending is the norm,” then genre has no “explanatory value. These statements are non sequitors. We can refer to “Charade” as a comedy thriller or even romantic comedy thriller with more enlightenment than confusion.

    Mike Grosts, “If ‘melodrama’ is to be a ‘genre’ like Westerns, musicals or detective stories, we need to see in detail what these ideas are” strikes me as useful.

    However, I see no big problem to surmount. “Moral, dramatic and emotional exaggeration” seem to me clear enough except for the pretty compelling view that this category bleeds into other genres like Westerns and musicals. The solution, I think, is that melodrama is in terms of the aforementioned definition quite extensive, encompassing other genres, but that in practice we hive off other overlapping genres like Western, Mystery, Horror, etc.
    (An obstacle is that so much “drama” and “literary adaptation” seems melodramatic and, thereby, somewhat stigmatized –fact of life: Hollywood as Melodrama!”)

    Quite clearly, “Imitation of Life,” “Magnificent Obsession,” and “Written on the Wind” are “melodramas” and “Tarnished Angels” certainly may be one as well.

    I’m not sure why you’re taking Freudian conceptions so seriously: on the one hand you don’t like Freudian theory; on the other they’ve really been long dead outside of certain corners of the humanities (and small cults), much as revolutionary Marxism is. I don’t see why traditional literary meanings (Cawelti’s, Gledhill’s) won’t do?

  • Blake Lucas

    “I see the stylization in Minnelli as art, not as an expression of the repressions of society, or mental illness.”

    I agree with that, Mike, and if I didn’t address Freudian theory as regards Minnelli in my posts that’s because I don’t see it as the basis of melodrama, while stylization as an artistic element is a component of melodrama. And of course, it is is equally a component of the other genres in which Minnelli worked.

    My view of Minnelli is mostly different from the people you mention–and I’ve probably posted specifically here that any perceived relationship between MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is absurd, even though the theory along those lines is famous now, at least in academic circles. I didn’t even mention George Romero’s film in my take on the Halloween sequence in DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES, much to the chagrin of followers of that theory I am sure, but instead aligned Tootie to the artist figure and characters of imagination who are central in Minnelli’s universe, and who, along with his own childhood memories and experiences, made this sequence so important to him.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that there is never neurosis, hysteria and mental illness in Minnelli. Because plainly, there is. When it comes up, that’s when we should deal with it and the way he treats in in the specific film.

    One final note about Minnelli and genres, because I believe in genres as important even when allowing them flexibility, a point that has been well-argued in this thread. I don’t for a moment believe one should prefer Minnelli’s melodramas to his musicals or vice-versa, or either to his comedies. My own list of favorite Minnellis is balanced between these genres, and I don’t think any true Minnelli admirer privileges one of them as more important than the others. I think studies of Minnelli like Stephen Harvey’s that divide into three sections–musicals, comedies, melodramas–make a serious error in separating them. The films should be treated chronologically. They were all important to him, one genre as much as another, and he took each as seriously and insisted it be realized with the same seriousness and artistry. And the personal vision he follows from one genre to the other and which evolves beautifully over the course of his career is so much his own that it is surely more important than genre definitions. That’s auteurism 101 maybe but it’s one reason why he is one of the greatest.

  • Rick Altman of course finds genre an extremely important concept, having devoted several studies on it. Genre blending would be the norm especially in films of high profile (commercially and artistically) but low budget programmers could tend to be more purely genre films. Vincente Minnelli made only high profile films.

  • Brian Dauth

    With reference to what Blake wrote about looking at Minnelli’s films chronologically as well as by genre: I watched GIGI last night, and it struck me how similar it was to HFTH. In GIGI, Gigi and Gaston are trying to find authenticity by escaping from the structures/codes represented by Honore and his world. In HFTH, the characters are attempting to achieve genuine human gestures in a world that defaults to melodrama.

  • Blake,
    Your entry on Tootie and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS in DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES is a favorite. I’ve long referenced it in my Minnelli web-book. Tootie definitely does seem like a young artist to be.
    I love singing cowboy movies. Favorites: the early B movie Joseph H. Lewis made with singing cowboy Bob Baker, and later with the Sons of the Pioneers.

    More broadly, agree with everyone that Hollywood frequently mixed and combined genres.
    Raoul Walsh especially did this.THE MAN I LOVE is both a so-called woman’s film and a musical. POSSESSED is famously a mix of a Western, and what would be considered a film noir mystery thriller, were it not set in the Old West.

  • Blake Lucas

    I think you mean PURSUED, Mike, rather than POSSESSED. In that case in my view it’s definitely foremost a Western–one of the very best–but noir-inflected like a few others of the period (RAMROD for example).

    Thanks for your comment re my Halloween entry. I just looked back at this in your website and read it and don’t remember reading it before. It seemed to me that there is a lot more on MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS than when I first read it sometime ago, and that you have added things since then.
    I liked what you wrote about Tootie. I hope to write on her at greater length sometime myself.

  • Blake,
    I doubled the size of the MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS article a year ago, and added all the Tootie comments then.

    Tootie is a fascinating person. She seems utterly individual. Also, indifferent to any social pressures or conformity.
    She seems quite mysterious in many ways. As if there were all sorts of depth to her.

    All of Minnelli’s artist characters are really interesting.

  • Ah, genres. Isn’t the purpose of genres to keep people like ourselves preoccupied with defining it? Maybe genres are opium to the cinephiles and scholars. I once wrote a dissertation dismissing most definitions of genre, and yet I cannot help but call films a “western” or a “musical”. And yesterday I wrote a blog post about the essence of noir. A lot of fun, but not sure if it made much sense.

    In a previous thread I said that I wasn’t sure THE MALTESE FALCON was a noir, and I believe Jean-Pierre said that if I didn’t feel it was a noir, then it wasn’t a noir.

    Dave, your article on Minnelli comes at a good time for me and my research since I’m at the moment writing on Ekman’s first colour film THE FIRE-BIRD, a film from 1952 about a ballet dancer, with choreography by Maurice Bèjart. It is shot using Gevacolor, which I hadn’t heard about before. Is it very unusual? Ekman had to go to Paris for post-production to use the laboratories there, because it was to complex for Swedish technicians at the time. The thing is that Ekman uses red frequently in the film, and the red colour is so rich, striking and vibrant it almost looks like the film is shot in 3D, not least the flowers look like they’re coming out of the screen.

    Also, Minnelli is one of my top ten directors, and the more he is discussed here, the better I feel! Thanks!

  • There is a film version reviving apparently the original Ballets Russes stage production of The Firebird (1910), where both the heroine and the hero are garbed in clothes that are red, red, RED.

    Minnelli was a huge admirer of the Ballets Russes. I’ve long wondered if the red in The Firebird helped inspire Minnelli red.

    The Ballets Russes were always in color, and its famous artist designers clearly “thought in color”. This too might have influenced the great Minnelli.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Looking at Tootie from a slightly different angle after Blake’s and Mike’s excellent remarks, one could say that she has an innate flair for the melodramatic, which of course gains her a place of choice in the Minnellian universe. If melodrama is “excessive emotion” then no one can beat Tootsie.

  • Bad New From Home – or a techincal update…

    I was looking forward to getting my copies of Minnelli classics by post.
    And I wasn’t disappointed with the soapy but visually wonderful star acting vehicle of Cobweb.
    Inwardly I was shedding tears of joy, when I found out it was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the young couple was seeing at the local cinema, my favorite musical (and Terence Davies’s too!).

    However, I was devastated to see the pixelated colored “boxes” that ruined the other film unwatchable on dvd, namely Two Weeks in Another Town. To my surprise, the Warner Archive dvd’s seem to be all region and at least Cobweb played nicely in my Blu-ray/dvd-player.
    No such luck with Two Weeks, whic I tried to play in my PAL Blu-ray and also R1-region player as well as my pc.

    Now I’ll have to return this film back and it’ll take many more weeks until I’ll be able to see this, I believe, superior Minnelli.

    I hope you haven’t had such experiences with Warner Archive dvd’s!

  • Hannu, it sounds like you got a bad burn of “Two Weeks” — my copy from WAC played flawlessly. I wonder if they are taking returns from Europe since I didn’t think they were selling outside the US. But it is of course a great film and worth waiting for.

  • Thanks, Dave! I do think I’ll get a return copy, since I bought it thru which seems to be a trustworthy outlet. There was no complication ordering to Europe, I got to know about Oldies for the first time thanks to a wink I got from one of our other friends commenting here.

    The Cobweb Warner dvd played really quite nicely, so it was just a case of bad luck on my part.

    I’m looking forward to seeing Two Weeks, and I wouldn’t know these Minnelli items were available if I wasn’t an avid follower of your wonderful site. Thank you!


  • Sorry, Dave, I don’t agree that “Tea and Sympathy”, stagy as it is, has held up. I see young men under these same pressures every day. In certain parts of the country “Tea and Sympathy” is absolutely up-to-date.